Alastair Boone is the editor-in-chief of Street Spirit and a former editorial fellow at CityLab.
It was the “year of the trans candidate” in the U.S., and generally a victorious year for LGBTQ politicians in city and state elections. But we are a long way away from proportional representation.
Before Jenny Durkan was elected mayor of Seattle in November, there had only been two other openly lesbian mayors of major U.S. cities in history: former Houston Mayor Annise Parker—who was the first openly LGBTQ mayor of any major American city—and Jackie Biskupski, the current mayor of Salt Lake City.
“For Jenny Durkan to be elected as an openly lesbian woman in Seattle is a huge win for our community,” said Elliot Imse, Director of Communications at Victory Fund, an organization that endorses LGBTQ candidates. “2017 was a great year for LGBTQ candidates. We really broke down a lot of barriers across the nation...and positioned the LGBTQ community to be better represented in 2018 and beyond.”
Durkan is just one of the LGBTQ politicians who saw success in city elections this year. 2017 has been named the “Year of the Trans Candidate,” following a slate of historic wins for transgender politicians, which more than doubled the number of trans elected officials nationwide. The most exalted victor was Danica Roem, who became the first openly transgender person ever to serve in a state legislature, after her Virginia win in November.
But there were a number of other big wins at the local level, many of which made state history. In Minneapolis, Andrea Jenkins and Phillippe Cunningham became the first openly trans people elected to the city council of a major U.S. city; Stephe Koontz won a seat on the Doraville City Council, making her the first openly trans person ever elected in Georgia; in Palm Springs, Lisa Middleton won a city council seat, making her the first openly transgender person to win a legislative seat in the state of California; and in Erie, Pennsylvania, Tyler Titus was elected to the city’s school board, making him the first openly transgender person ever to hold office in the state. Furthermore, in Palm Springs, Middleton's win capped off another achievement for the city: She joined Christy Holstege, a woman who identifies as bisexual, in creating an entirely LGBTQ city council.
“I think down-ballot elected positions set the stage for the larger positions, such as mayor,” Imse said. “Most of our LGBTQ mayors began their public service careers in hyperlocal elected positions—as a neighborhood commissioner, a school board member or a city council member.”
In this way, mayors can act as something of a barometer for progress. And this isn’t just the case in large, liberal cities. Even though Durkan is one of only four openly gay mayors to helm the nation’s most populous cities, her win brought the total number of LGBTQ mayors—within cities of all sizes—up to 23.
According to Imse, Durkan’s win is a sign that voters have become more willing to elect LGBTQ mayors who campaign on the issues that matter to them. And while this strategy is nothing new, what’s changed is voters’ attitudes.
“A majority of voters just a couple decades ago considered being LGBTQ a disqualifier,” Imse said. But for a growing number of Americans, this is no longer the case. Danica Roem’s race, for example, received international attention because Roem is transgender. But the reason she won is because she spent the majority of her campaign talking about fixing roads, and improving commute times in her district. “An openly LGBTQ candidate for mayor is a big deal, but it is their positions on the issues that matter most to constituents that will win the day,” Imse said.
Nevertheless, there’s a lot of work left to be done. While LGBTQ people make up 4.1 percent of the population, they hold only 0.1 percent of elected positions nationwide. “We’re making tremendous progress, but it is a long road before we will achieve equitable representation,” Imse said.
In many cases, the hyperlocal positions won this year are the filaments of this progress. For any politician—regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity—they provide the space to establish their footing. But for LGBTQ candidates in particular, they can be a crucial leg up over competitors who are not openly LGBTQ, but may feel more familiar to voters even if they have less political experience.
“Fundamentally, people vote for those who they believe understand their lives, their daily experience,” said Annise Parker, who is now the president and CEO of Victory Fund. “The reason that we’ve had successes in some unlikely places, and even with some unlikely candidates, is that candidates who win don’t suddenly wake up one day and say ‘oh I’m gonna run for city council or the state house’…They have shared experiences [with their voters].”
According to Parker, her previous political experience was central to her watershed victory in 2010. Before being elected mayor, Parker served three terms on the Houston city council, as well as three terms as city controller. “By the time I ran for mayor of Houston, I had already been elected six times in Houston, and I had run eight times,” she said.
However, despite her extensive experience, running for mayor was a whole different ballgame. “It’s fine if you’re a council member and you represent a district that looks like you, but this is the whole city… And there’s a mindset shift that has to happen about that,” said Parker. “Mayors are the public face and voice of their city. You’re the image, you’re the spokesperson. You’re the one someone sees in an emergency, you’re the one who welcomes dignitaries. You are the embodiment of the city.”
Despite these challenges, more LGBTQ people are stepping up to represent their cities than ever. This year, the Victory Institute—Victory Fund’s sister organization, which trains LGBTQ people to run for office—trained more than three times the number of people they did in 2016. “That was most definitely the result of the energy after the presidential election. People were fired up [and] ready to run,” Imse said. (You can get to know your LGBTQ elected officials using this interactive map).
Still, shattering the lavender ceiling won’t be easy. Even established LGBTQ politicians face discrimination well into their political careers. Tammy Baldwin, who is the first and only openly LGBTQ U.S. Senator, was recently accused by a right-wing political action committee of discussing gay sex with schoolchildren. (There is no sound evidence to support these claims.)
Parker recalls facing similarly intolerant rhetoric while she was running for mayor.
“There was a hit piece that came out on me in my first run for mayor... It was a post card and it showed me being sworn in as city controller. And I’m standing on stage with my now wife by my side, and I’m being sworn in by a black female federal judge,” she said. “And the caption on the post card said ‘Is this the image of Houston we want the world to see?’”
Seven years ago, Houston answered yes. And Parker believes the rest of the country will follow suit.
“Americans are fundamentally fair and decent, and they’ll get there. But that doesn’t mean we don’t take losses on the way.”